Battle tank ballet

  • A T-90 tank takes a jump Image credit: Oleg Nikishin
  • barbarians clash with 12th-century Kievan Rus. Image credit: Oleg Nikishin
  • sweltering but appreciative Russians fill the viewing stands. Image credit: Oleg Nikishin
  • Russians approach the tools of warfare in an unabashed, adoring way. Image credit: Oleg Nikishin
Date:1 February 2011 Tags:, , , , , ,

PM gets a rare ringside seat at a festive Russian arms fair, where theatrics, patriotism and intense sales pitches reveal the strengths and insecurities of a former superpower re-arming.
By Joe Pappalardo

Zhukovsky, Russia. Andrei Melanyin, production director at the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre, watches his performers rehearse from a director’s chair, his legs neatly crossed. He’s perched on top of a virtually empty grandstand, protected from the blazing summer sun by a beige tent. Everything about Melanyin is smooth, from his hand gestures to his answers during multilingual media interviews to the tanned crown of his head. A lesser professional would show nerves: after all, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and an entourage of defence industry leaders and foreign dignitaries will arrive the next day to witness a portion of Melanyin’s show, Unbeatable and legendary. And in Russia, nobody’s opinion means more than Putin’s, who has become one part chief executive and three parts czar.

Melanyin evaluates the performers’ pirouettes with a practised eye, looking for mistakes; as the choreographer, he is intimately familiar with the routine. But the dancers in this performance weigh 46 tons more than a typical ballerina. The stars here are T-90 battle tanks that, along with dozens of other heavy military vehicles, are being showcased during a government-sponsored arms show held at this famed aviation test and design centre just outside Moscow. On the parade field in front of the grandstand, a trio of the heavy tanks spin their turrets in unison, carefully rolling past one another in synchronised lurches. A pair of T-90s cross barrels as they roll forward. “They asked me to come in and do something theatrical,” Melanyin says of the event’s government organisers. “They wanted something more than just a technical demonstration.” Not only Putin will see this spectacular, set to debut before the VIPs on Thursday: tens of thousands of Russian civilians are expected over the weekend.

This strangely festive arms show is a reflection of the ambitious transformation of the Russian military. In 2010, the Federal Service for Military and Technical Co-operation (FSMTC) combined several dry defence trade shows into a single event and turned part of it into a patriotic rally. The organisers needed something to get people’s attention – hence the nexus of brutish tanks and graceful ballet.

After the T-90s finish practising the synchronised dance, the rehearsal moves on to more conventional theatrics. The show covers Russian fights against classic foes, including 12th-century barbarians, Napoleonic troops and modern, masked insurgents from breakaway provinces. Melanyin’s booming voice addresses a pair of actors dressed as imperial Russian cannoneers, who are struggling with a pint-sized cannon, telling them to take their routine from the top. “I asked for 200 volunteers, but I got just 20,” he explains later. “And I spent all my volunteers on the 12th century.”

The Engineering Technologies Forum opens quietly. Guests file through the main gates, located near a boneyard where retired Russian warplanes are cannibalised for spare parts. The Soviet military was so vast, and fell apart so thoroughly, that fields of neglected equipment are known for their epic, horizon-to-horizon size. This one is comparably modest, but any aviation enthusiast would be content to spend the day examining the well-worn Tu-95 bombers, MiG-21 fighters and Mi-24 Hind helicopters.

The Soviet Union produced massive amounts of weapons, and after its 1991 dissolution, the Communist government sold as much as possible. Former Cold War allies remain customers of the Russian Federation. In 2010, the nation exported nearly R70 billion in arms, R7 billion more than in 2009. The United States’ arms sales dwarf Russia’s – in 2010 alone, the Obama administration finalised a R46 billion deal with Taiwan and announced a R420 billion agreement with Saudi Arabia, the biggest arms sale in US history.

Still, there is a robust market for Russian arms among nations looking for good deals with few strings attached. Representatives from dozens of countries attend the first, business-focused days of Scenes from the fair (clockwise from top left): families swarm a tank at the static displays; A T-90 tank takes a jump; sweltering but appreciative Russians fill the viewing stands; barbarians clash with 12th-century Kievan Rus. the forum, wandering the aisles inside converted hangars, chatting with spokesmen and booth bunnies. Iranian academics in slacks and long-sleeve shirts wander the exhibition, pausing to check out new antiaircraft-missile seekers, while United Arab Emirates delegates in dark suits examine obstacle-clearing vehicles parked outside. Putin himself squires Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, around the T-90s on display.

But selling weapons is only one part of Russia’s newfound ambitions. Over the past decade, the government has consolidated most of the defence industry under government control and set the nation’s sights – and oil revenues – on re-armament. Putin’s plan is to create a better-trained, more mobile force that can deftly fight guerrillas while countering Western influence in Eastern Europe. “The most important thing is that the (Putin regime) has a vision of what they want the military to be,” says Dmitry Gorenburg, editor of Russian politics and law. “Since the Cold War ended, the government didn’t have that.”

The weekend is reserved for the Russian people. Other nations’ air shows may indulge in family-friendly militarism, but Russians approach the tools of warfare in an unabashed, adoring way.

The FSMTC estimates that 50 000 attend the show. The plastic furniture, steady odour of grilled meat and overhead formations of kites evoke the feeling of a music festival. Young men take photos of their sweethearts posing languidly against armoured personnel carriers. Dads photograph their kids hoisting rifles or straddling anti-aircraft missiles.

Tens of millions of fathers and uncles of Russian teenagers served in the Soviet Army. More important, their grandfathers served in World War II. Veterans of that era are treated with a reverence that is unequalled in most other countries. After all, Russia was fighting for its very existence in World War II; an estimated 20 million civilians and soldiers died. Citizens of other countries don’t visit memorials of war vets on their wedding day to give thanks, as Russian couples do.

The government is eager to stoke this patriotic heritage as the country re-arms. The reason is conscription: despite recent efforts to wean its armed forces from the draft, the Russian military still relies on conscripts. However, it is easy to defer service for legitimate reasons, or by bribing a doctor for an exemption, sapping manpower. Patriotic displays are part of the government’s solution: It’s not a coincidence that kids under 14 get into the arms show for free.

Unbeatable and legendary begins in the 12th century and skips like a fake gemstone across the surface of Russian history. The crowd watches politely, with tepid applause, as the Russians vanquish barbarians and the French with humble special effects such as flaming clubs and one-fifth-scale cannons. The crowd perks up when paratroopers in blue berets perform feats of hand-to-hand combat. The strains of Ravel’s Bolero give the display a surreal feel, the passionate, surging music an odd complement to violent hip tosses, brick-crunching punches and mock-fatal blows delivered by shovel-shaped entrenching tools.

Then a true icon appears: a T-34 medium tank, a workhorse from World War II. The sight provokes an immediate emotional reaction in the stands. “The one thing from the 20th century that Russian people can unqualifiedly call ‘good’ was that they won World War II,” Gorenburg says. The re-enactor in the turret is beaming, bathed in applause as if he were an actual Great Patriotic War veteran.

Heavy-metal music heralds the arrival of the modern tanks, starting with a T-80U kicking up a spray of gravel as it roars past the viewing stands. A pair of T-90s tears into the demonstration area like the top-of-the-food-chain predators they are. One by one, the T-90s roar toward a 1,2-metre ramp, building speed for the jump.

As a tank takes to the air, the rhythmic mechanical squeal of the treads goes silent, and there is a thump, felt in the feet and stomach from 10 metres away, when the 42-ton vehicle slams back to the ground. “It’s as easy to operate as a car,” one driver tells a Russian television crew. “The only difference is you steer with levers instead of a wheel.”

The electric guitar cuts away and, as a martial pomp begins, the T-90s gather on a concrete slab at the centre of the course. First, two tanks cross their gun barrels and ease forward together. A third main battle tank arrives, and the three pirouette – one of the few terms shared by tanks and ballet – in unison. The trio manoeuvres with unexpected precision. The synchronicity falters, but the tanks never touch – an impressive feat considering the vehicles’ girth.

The standing-room-only crowd claps at the display. Melanyin does not confess to any of the jingoism in his latest, strangest ballet. “All I want,” he says of the crowd’s reception, “is to hear their applause.” When the national anthem plays and the vehicles slide past in a rolling curtain call, it’s easy for a foreigner in the stands to avoid a twinge of pride. But as the audience claps and sings along, it becomes hard not to feel left out.

Related material
Video:
To watch "dancing" tanks in a co-ordinated, and often, bizarre display. [click here]